I am not the person to tell you all about chickens, even though I have kept them for a several-years' total at three different stints in my life. I am just a hobbyist; Wooly Daisy is passionate about chicken-keeping. So, I asked her permission to reprint one of her best chicken columns, all about what to do if you order baby chicks from a hatchery:
On May 8, at approximately 9:37am, Liam and I raced down to the Camptonville Post Office after receiving a phone call from Postmaster Bo Salisbury. I had just become mother hen to a boxful of baby chicks. Bo presented us with a box full of cute little peeping fluff balls. When we got home we opened the box and counted 22 chicks. Huh? We only ordered 18. I read the invoice and discovered they throw in some baby roosters as packing peanuts. Actually they are used for warmth. As you know, I don’t want any roosters!!!!! What was I to do with four White Leghorn roosters? Ugh! The thought of finding them homes seemed ominous.
One of our bathrooms has once again been converted into a chick brooder. Actually it’s just a huge cardboard box in the bathtub with a heat lamp clamped to it. We put pine (never use cedar as it is toxic to chickens) shavings in the box covered with paper towel to keep the chicks from eating the litter. They need to learn what they are suppose to eat. As we took the chicks out of the box we dipped their beaks in the water dish to teach them to drink. We added a tiny bit of sugar to the water to help deal with the stress of the trip. In addition to
baby chick starter feed we offered some hard-boiled egg yolks for nutrition. They were tiny, delicate and loud. It had been awhile since we have had the wee things around. I had forgotten how fragile they were. The chicks need to be kept warm-around 95 degrees for the first week-lowering the temperature weekly. The hardest problem for me is dealing with “pasting up.” This is actually a common occurrence in baby chicks but can lead to death if not dealt with. Pasting up occurs when poop sticks to their little bottoms and dries like cement! Ugh! Talk about a bad case of constipation....big bummer! Eventually the chick can’t relieve itself and dies. So, I’ve been spending my days wiping little chicken butts with warm paper towels to loosen the dried poop. Pleasant, huh?
When ordering chicks via a hatchery it is not unusual to lose about 20% of them. Sadly we lost the 2 Golden Penciled Hamburgs. They were even smaller than the bantams (miniature chickens) we ordered. The hatchery told me they were not as hearty as the other breeds. We added electrolytes to the drinking water but that didn’t help. Liam had specifically wanted this breed, as they looked prehistoric. I wanted them, as they were known as “Dutch Everyday Layers.” At least the other chicks seem to be thriving, so I better get that dang coop finished
Stephanie writes a regular column on chicken-keeping for our local monthly newspaper, The Camptonville Courier, which can be read here. I also subscribe to a great monthly (virtual) newsletter, Keeping Chickens Newsletter, by Gina Read.
Now that I have gotten you excited about adding chickens to your family, let's dive in and discuss getting there. First, why would you want to order them from a hatchery? Besides the fact that they are cute and fluffy, the hatchery takes the guesswork out of buying for you, allowing you to order all hens if you want, instead of waiting until you hear a bunch of juvenile crowing (which sounds more like croaking at that stage) to realize that you have more roosters than hens and will either need to learn to kill and cook your roosters or find someone else who wants one. You see, roosters are very territorial and you really can only have one at a time. And then only if you and your neighbors will be happy with crowing at all hours. Plus, since it is the hens that lay the eggs, you really want either all hens or hens and their one rooster that you are providing with feed.
Additionally, you can have the pleasure of scanning the hatchery catalogs and picking just the breeds you want, rather than the ones you can locate in your region. DH and I favor Austrolorps and Buff Orpingtons, because they are heavy-breed chickens that don't mind being confined in winter, which happens with our heavy snows. Your needs may be different, or you may fall in love with the way Silkies look, or want Rhode Island Reds because that is what your grandma had when you were growing up... you will find that most of the widely-available chickens are hearty, healthy and good layers, at least for the first few years.
As you start exploring getting some chickens, you will also want to take a good look around your place and figure out where they can safely live. There are many other animals that will see the idea of your keeping a flock of chickens as something similar to opening a fast-food restaurant for them: raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, bear, even the neighborhood dogs (or your own!). DH built us a coop that is attached to one of our outbuildings (originally served as a carriage house back in 1854), using the existing structure, lots of reinforcing, and even burying the chicken wire deeply around the edges in debris-lined trenches (recycled from the never-ending supply of old bits of pottery, nails, etc. that come with living on a long-settled property) so that those crafty raccoons can't dig their way in. You can also get plans here for a creative and beautiful hen hotel, or purchase a wonderful chicken-tractor/coop, made by Creative Coops here in my region. I was delighted when I saw their models on display at my local farmers market last spring, even though DH had built such a good solution for us... maybe I really AM almost as passionate about chickens as Wooly Daisy!
In my search for photos of various chicken breeds, these are the most unusual, for you purple-lovers... the Lavender Pekins from Brockscombe Valley Farms. I also found this hatchery, which caters to the pet chicken owner, shipping just a handful rather than a large quantity.
Now, for the 'good story'... back before DH and I were married, we were neighbors, raising single-parent families, and had some other neighbors around as well. A group of us went in on ordering a 50-chick lot, from Murray McMurray, one of the largest (and one of the few) mail-order hatcheries at that time, about 18 years ago. I was the person whose name was on the order, and I got a phone call one morning, before the crack of dawn, from the Grass Valley post office, saying "We have a box of chickens coming to you... and they are REALLY loud". I said thanks and that I would make sure they were picked up at my local post office in the afternoon. I headed out to work and got a call around lunch time from my postmistress, in distress, saying, in effect, "OMG, there's a box... it's for you... they're making a lot of noise... it says "LIVE CHICKS".... when can you be here?".... she was pretty panicked and could hardly get the sentences out! Of course, another neighbor was already on the way to get them, and when I returned home, we divided the lot in half. Chickens shipped by mail need light and water right away, so my oldest son and I set up the cardboard-box/hatchery that was to be their home for the next few weeks, and started dipping their beaks in the water, as per instructions. We were busy setting up lights, etc., and turned around to notice several falling into the water... next thing, we were busy with the hair dryer, blow drying every one of them so they wouldn't lose body heat!
Happy Earth Day, everyone.... be sure to share your sustainability stories with me!